Jack Goes Boating: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Feature Debut

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Philip Seymour Hoffman's great qualities as an actor–fearlessness, intelligence, an invisible capacity for character–are readily apparent in "Jack Goes Boating," his small though quietly distinctive directing debut.

The film world-premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Fest (in Premieres section), then played at Toronto Film Fest.

"Jack Goes Boating" is not flashy, but soulful and funky, with some uneven parts and one very problematic narrative hole. In adapting the 2007 Off-Broadway play by Bob Glaudini, Hoffman works hard to create a work of cinema and find a fresh vernacular to material he is intimately familiar with. Hoffman played the part on stage. He has cast two other holdovers who also worked with him on stage. The movie has some quite different emotional registers, moving from a quiet introspection to a more unsettled and vicious display of resentment and extreme frustration.

The title (perhaps an allusion to Jacques Rivette's modernist classic, "Celine and Julie Go Boating") is only the first of the movie's several explicit water references. The quartet is also central to the form and structure of the movie. Glaudini adapted his own script, and he builds story, conflict and nuance through opposition of character and action among a group of four people.

The story unfolds in a wintry New York. Hoffman plays the hulking, quiet eponymous loner who supports himself driving a limousine for his uncle's company. His only apparent friend is Clyde (John Ortiz), another driver for his uncle. The two are introduced, in a tight close up, sitting in the driver's side of their respective limousines. Clyde's wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who works for a Brooklyn mortuary scientist, wants to set Jack up with a new colleague, Connie (Amy Ryan).

The story develops through opposites: Jack is aloof, somewhat disconnected (his signature act is listening to a cassette walkman that like Wong Kar-wai used "California Dreamin'" in "Chungking Express," plays reggae as though on a recurrent loop). Jack's even tried to grow dreadlocks, but he's done such a lousy job, he ends having a wear a pullover skull cap most of the time, even when he's indoors. Clyde's all manic energy and aggressive flourishes. The women similarly play out similar identities. Lucy is profane, colorful, a quick wit. Connie is protective and withholding.

Brought together during a quiet dinner party at the apartment of Clyde and Lucy, the two warily dance around each other. Connie draws out the morbid humor of her father's peculiar coma experiences and his strange end, and she appears attracted to his quiet strength and understatement.

Suddenly motivated by the possibility of a full fledged relationship, Jack is jolted from reluctant and passive outsider to somebody who is now desperate to have meaning and value. He gets excited about a job with the city's public transportation authority. Drawn by Connie's promise of spending a romantic afternoon together on a quiet and idyllic boat trip, Jack enlists Clyde's help in learning how to swim.

The pool sequences, imaginatively rendered by cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III through a sometimes startling interplay of light, space, shadow and liquid, underscore the strong emotional bond of the two men. It is during an off-hand remark by Clyde in response to Jack's desire to prepare a home cooked meal for Connie that alters the emotional dynamics of the movie. In their conversation, Clyde reveals a painful episode of Lucy's unfaithfulness.

Glaudini's script of opposition and reversals kicks into high gear as the enfolding relationship of the two emotionally detached respected lovers is contrasted by the sudden deterioration of the apparently stable and solid "traditional couple," of Clyde and Lucy.

It is a provocative idea, but it also marks the point where the movie gets on more tricky ground. Connie's defensive, closed off difficulties with intimacy is sharply counterbalanced by more and more examples of Lucy's indiscretions.

If Connie is too broadly perceived as a shrew, Lucy is unfairly maligned as a harlot. Clyde is the cuckold whose damaged masculinity is hidden by his outward friendliness and engaging accessibility. Lucy's character appears more heartless and unsympathetic, and her character is denied the necessary human complexities that would not necessarily explain it, but somehow mitigate and balance out her actions.

After a while, the conception of Lucy feels like an act of piling on. It leads to the movie's explosive conflict where a drug and drink fueled night causes an intense rupture and disastrous development that violently culminates with Lucy's vicious and nasty putdown of Clyde.

Hoffman is very good charting these different emotional actions, frustrations and buried resentments. It is certainly not surprising that Hoffman has a great facility and generosity with his actors. Hoffman has worked with some dynamic and interesting directors, and he's learned well. "Jack Goes Boating" is impressively put together, and it's visually supple and precise in a way that leaves a distinct impression.

Ryan is the only newcomer to the cast who did not originate the role on stage. Her range and tender, wry movements bring a different coloring and shading to the material that plays well against the more demonstrative and furious actions of Clyde and Lucy.

The sometimes severe tonal shifts are difficult for any director to modulate and persuasively shape; the problem is especially acute for a first-time feature director. not "Citizen Kane" or "Shadows," but it certainly leaves a mark and suggests a promising next step to an exceptionally talented and innovative artist.